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My trip to Rome earlier this month was, gastronomically, very much of an auld lang syne experience. Beloved Spouse and I dined only at restaurants we’ve known and loved for years, and mostly on dishes that we’ve often eaten there and that are a large part of the reason we love them. Here are what we had on three of the days.

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fortunato-al-pantheon

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Fortunato al Pantheon
is a slightly austere establishment, favored by politicians from the nearby national Parliament. It was a modest trattoria years ago, when we first discovered it, but it has grown in elegance while still retaining its basic honesty.

The moment we walked into the dining room, we smelled truffles. Wow! We hadn’t expected the season to have started yet. We couldn’t resist them, but first we had to have antipasti: a pair of carciofi alla romana and a plate of salume.
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fortunato-1

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Then came the truffles. For Tom, tagliarini topped at tableside with shavings of a single large white truffle; and for me tagliarini already dressed with a sauce of black truffle and porcini mushrooms. By our waiter’s courtesy, I also received the last little bits of Tom’s white truffle.
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tartufi-bianchi

Tagliarini con tartufi bianchi

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tartufi-neri

Tagliarini con tartufi neri e funghi porcini

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These were both stunningly rich dishes, but after them we felt we could manage a little dessert: a dish of fragoline con panna and a small tiramisù.
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fortunato-3

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Walking back to our hotel, we pondered one of the enduring mysteries of Roman dining: How do you get fresh artichokes, wild strawberries, and truffles at the same season?
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checchino

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Another evening found us at Checchino dal 1887. It’s in Testaccio, the epicenter of Rome’s ancient quinto quarto cuisine – i.e., variety meats, or more simply, offal. Testaccio used to be the butcher’s section of the city, and the “fifth quarter” of the animal was what the poor got, after the best cuts went to the aristocracy, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the military. Dishes made from those innards, though not for today’s faint-hearted eater, are central to Rome’s traditional cuisine.

Here, Tom always starts with the same pasta dish: rigatoni con pajata. Pajata is the small intestine of milk-fed lamb, still filled with partially digested milk. Tied into little sausages and cooked in tomato sauce, it’s delicious beyond what you would expect. That evening I chose an equally traditional, though meatless, first course: pasta e ceci (chickpeas).
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checchino-1-1

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I made up for that reticence with my second course, padellotto alla macellara. This “butcher’s platter” was a sauté of pajata, liver, sweetbreads, and testicolo. (Yes, testicle). Not your everyday plate of protein. Tom had a bollito misto – mixed boiled meats – including on this occasion beef, calf’s tongue, and a small pig’s foot.
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padelotto.
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I must admit, we couldn’t finish either of these ample plates.
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zi-umberto

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Osteria da Zi’ Umberto
is a small, lively, bustling, casual eating place in Trastevere. Though not strong on atmosphere and looking a little run-down, it turns out very good, mostly rustic food at relatively modest prices. After starting with a few fiori fritti (batter-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies), we had first courses of pappardelle with wild boar sauce and fettuccine with porcini mushrooms.
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2-umberto-pastas

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Then Tom had oxtails – coda alla vaccinara – and I had suckling pig – maialino arrosto con patate. Both were beautifully prepared.
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coda

 

maialino-arrosto.

At all these meals we drank wine, of course – mostly wines of Rome’s Lazio region, which aren’t commonly available in New York – and ended with espressos and grappa. Many interesting kinds of grappa. Tom has written a post about the wines for his blog, which you can see here.

Our remaining three dinners in Rome are described in my next post.

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Cassoulet for Christmas

My Christmas dinner this year emphasized heartiness rather than elegance. The main course was a big pot of cassoulet with lamb, garlic sausage, and duck confit. We were going to eat as if it were frigid winter outside, despite what the thermometer had been saying.

Cassoulet

Actually, my cassoulet recipe somehow got away from me this time. That’s a seven-quart pot, and there were only four of us dining. Some time ago I’d created a small recipe, much simplified from Julia Child’s version in Mastering, Vol. I, for a cassoulet for two. All I did this time was double it, but it certainly grew! Here are the components:

ingredients

The intimidating size of the dish was mostly because of the quantity of beans, I think. Rancho Gordo says its cassoulet beans are bred from original French Tarbais stock, which is the classic cassoulet bean. When I gave them an overnight soaking two evenings before Christmas, they swelled enormously. The next day, when I cooked them with onion, bacon, pork skin, garlic, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, and clove, they “swole” even more. Sampled, they already tasted delicious. They went into the refrigerator overnight.

Also that day in advance, I cooked chunks of lamb shoulder with onion, wine, broth, tomato paste, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. That stew also reposed in the refrigerator overnight, developing its flavor.

So by Christmas Day all the heavy work had already been done, and I had only to drain the beans, put them in the big pot, stir in the lamb and its liquid, tuck in slices of French-style garlic sausage and confit duck legs, add a little of the bean soaking liquid, and put the whole thing into a 375° oven for about an hour. I also boiled little German butterball potatoes in their jackets, to serve alongside.

cassoulet 1

That array of meats and beans made hefty platefuls, almost staggeringly rich and succulent. We bravely worked our way through them and, at the end, were surprised by how much we had managed to eat. Still, there were ample leftovers to look forward to in the days ahead.

Combined with a first course of coquilles St. Jacques nantaise and followed by a cheese course, a pear sorbet and Christmas cookies, plus, of course, wines from Beloved Spouse’s collection, that cassoulet made it a merry Christmas meal indeed.

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Making a meal of dishes featured in Andrea Camilleri’s novels about the Sicilian police inspector Salvo Montalbano seems to have become an annual event for me.

When, in the middle of an investigation, our hero is struck by “his customary wolflike hunger,” the meals he eats are described with such gusto that I’d give montalbano cookbookanything to be able to join him at the table. That not being possible, my next choice is to page through Stefania Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri and plan a dinner around some of that cookbook’s recipes. I’ve written about my results here four times in the past four years; so to keep up the tradition, here’s this year’s installment – one dish from each of three of the novels, which I made for a small dinner party with friends who are also Montalbano fans.

Sfincione

With aperitifs in the living room, I made a sfincione, which is a kind of focaccia or thick-crust Sicilian pizza, very popular even here in the US, that’s mentioned in Excursion to Tindari. Montalbano himself doesn’t eat this. He hears about it from a garrulous old citizen he’s questioning, who tries to describe the entire meal his nephew, who lives in Tindari, served him on the day of the titular excursion – starting with a sfincione.

Sfincione

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The book’s recipe calls for already-risen bread dough (purchased, presumably), into which you are to knead grated pecorino, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. I made my own dough, using my favorite focaccia recipe. I pressed it into a pan, spread over it a quickly made tomato-onion sauce, dotted it with bits of anchovies, strewed on shavings of caciocavallo cheese, and baked it in a hot oven until just barely done.

I did all this early in the day, so in the evening all I had to do was add a topping of fine breadcrumbs sauteed in olive oil and return the pan to the oven for 10 minutes. Cut into small squares, the sfincione was a very tasty snack. We made short work of it.

Sfincione finishing

 

Polpettine di polipetti

Of the day’s three dishes, this was the most unusual one, which I was most eager to make: octopus croquettes. One of Montalbano’s two favorite restaurants is the eponymous trattoria of his friend Calogero. In The Smell of the Night he arrives there at lunchtime with that wolflike hunger of his and eats spaghetti in squid ink followed by a dozen fried octopus meatballs. They sounded fascinating, but since I had never even heard of making croquettes from octopus, much less tasted any, I didn’t want to chance them as the main course of my dinner party, so I made them as a hot antipasto.

It was quite a production. Here are the main stages:

Polpettini

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I had already-cooked octopus tentacles in the freezer, left over from a previous cooking event. We put them through the meat grinder (those are Tom’s hands in the picture) and I mixed in grated pecorino cheese, bread soaked in white wine and squeezed almost dry, garlic, parsley, and an egg. I shaped the mixture into balls, put them in refrigerator for a few hours to firm up, dipped them in egg and then breadcrumbs, and fried them. All this this was early in the afternoon. At dinner time I reheated the croquettes in the oven.

Alongside, we served cut-up lemons and a spicy tomato sauce (Tom’s idea and invention). With great curiosity, everyone tasted them. Oh, dear! While they were perfectly acceptable croquettes, they had no flavor of octopus. Squeezes of lemon brought out a hint of it, but so mildly that the basic ingredient could have been any white meat – chicken, pork, veal, even alligator or rattlesnake. I suspect it was the pecorino that masked the flavor of the octopus, but you couldn’t even taste cheese as such. We all ate a few, but the dish was a letdown – edible, certainly, but far from exciting. I can’t believe Calogero wouldn’t have made it better.

Agnello alla cacciatora

Every reader of the novels knows that Montalbano would much rather dine on fish than meat. He doesn’t get that choice on an occasion in The Voice of the Violin: Calogero’s place is closed that day and he tries La Cacciatora, an osteria 20 kilometers inland from the coast. When the proprietor asks him what he’ll have, Montalbano says “Bring me whatever you like.”

He receives a fiery hot pasta to start, followed by the house’s lamb hunter’s style. He likes it, particularly enjoying the “pleasant fragrance of onion and oregano.” That made me a bit suspicious of the cookbook’s recipe, which contains black olives, capers, celery, red wine, tomato paste, only a little onion, and no oregano. (I added some at the end.)

lamb cacciatora

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It was a pleasant enough lamb braise. But it would have seemed much more Sicilian to us – and probably more interesting – if it had been made with swordfish rather than lamb. I’ll bet Montalbano would have liked it that way too.

The lamb I cooked a whole day in advance, since stews and braises generally taste better if given some time for their flavors to develop and blend. Which they did, but not in a way as to really excite our palates. On the positive side, none of these three dishes seemed to have been at all harmed for having been done in advance and reheated. A very useful attribute for a busy dinner-party cook.

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My birding trip in Spain was definitely not focused on gastronomy. All dinners were taken at the simple rural hotels where our group was staying, and lunches were at cafes and other modest eateries in villages along the birding routes. Menus were sometimes limited, with dishes selected in advance for the group by the local leader (and described for us in English, so I never got some of the Spanish names). Nevertheless, we encountered very good food in some of those places, including a few dishes that I hope to be able to recreate at home.

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Lunches were usually a large assortment of tapas for the whole table, ranging from salads to the ubiquitous fried squid. Here are a few of the interesting items. (Click to enlarge the images.)

tapas

Jamón Ibérico, the air-cured Iberian ham at left, is always a treat. The fried cuttlefish were even tastier than their close relatives, squid. Next, potato croquettes – a frequent tapa offering. The medium-sized garden snails, a delicious short-season specialty, appeared to have been cooked with oil, garlic, and smoked paprika. And the last dish on the right is grilled chipirones: very small squid.

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Frequent main courses at dinner included beautifully cooked fresh seafood:

seafood dishes

The tiny fried fish are fresh anchovies. Next, braised octopus. In the middle, a roasted whole choco, or large cuttlefish. More small fried fish, including tiny soles. Last, two tentacles of yet another octopus.

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There were also good, hearty meat and poultry dishes.

3 meat dishes

Left to right, a simple lamb stew with the Basque name Corderico al Txilindron; duck leg confit; and Codillo de cerdo. This last was mystifyingly translated for me as “elbow of pork”; close examination showed it to be a pork shank that had been halved lengthwise through the bone.

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We even came upon some surprisingly elegant and sophisticated preparations. At lunch one day, everyone in our group was served a large, richly eggy crepe filled with wild mushrooms and topped with something like a light Mornay sauce. It was marvelous.

crepe

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Another day, as a dinner appetizer Tom had “ravioli” made with rice papers instead of pasta, filled with a creamy mixture of pears and oveja cheese, topped with pesto, and served on a bed of ratatouille. An improbable combination, it seemed to me, but intriguing and very flavorful.

ravioli

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That same evening, my appetizer was a cake of spicy revolcona potatoes topped with a perfectly poached egg and surrounded by quickly sauteed Ibérico ham. That in itself was almost enough for a dinner!

revolcona

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Finally, the most noteworthy dessert I had in Spain was Torrija. This traditional sweet is a sort of hybrid of French toast and bread pudding, and this version came with a crunchy crème brûlée topping. Quite luscious.

torrija

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These last four dishes are the ones I’m determined to try making at home. If I succeed, you may be meeting them again in future posts.

P.S. Tom’s blog has a post on some of the wines we drank in Spain.

 

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After exploring new restaurants during our recent stay in the Lazio countryside, Tom and I were ready for old familiar places and old favorite dishes when we got to Rome for the second half of our trip.  Here are some that we enjoyed.

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Ar Galletto, just off the Piazza Farnese, used to be a simple down-home trattoria. We were dismayed to find it had moved just into the piazza and upgraded to a severe – not to say stark – modernity. That elegance took away some of the fun for us, but happily, the kitchen hadn’t changed. Since it was high porcini mushroom season, the highlights of that dinner were my primo of fettucini con funghi porcini and Tom’s secondo of porcini ai ferri. My pasta was lavishly adorned with the mushrooms, and Tom’s grilled caps were huge and succulent.

Rome 1

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Still in the fungus category, there were white truffles all over Rome. When we ordered tonnarelli ai tartufi bianchi at Fortunato al Pantheon, another old favorite place, the aroma of truffle when the cart was wheeled over to prepare our dish perfumed half the restaurant. We weren’t given all those truffles in the picture on the left below, but they didn’t stint. The picture on the right is a half portion (we shared the dish). Those truffles were even better than the ones Tom had in his white truffle menu in Lazio.

Rome 2

BTW: 2014 should be a great year for white truffles, because the north of Italy had a lousy summer – chilly and frequently rainy – which, though terrible for grapes, is just what truffles like. The subterranean beauties will be abundant and delicious, and maybe less expensive than in the past few years.

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La Sagrestia, near the Piazza Rotonda, for years was the only pizzeria in the centro storico that offered pizzas at midday. That’s not true any longer, but Sagrestia is still a must-stop place for us for a reasonably modest lunch. Roman pizzas are very different from Neapolitan ones: The crust is as thin as a matzoh and extremely crisp. (I’m speaking of individual round pizzas, not the very large rectangular slabs – pizza al metro – sold by the slice.) We had one pizza with sausage and one with lardo di colonnata. I was hesitant about a lardo topping – it’s pure fat, after all – but curiosity prevailed. It was amazingly good. I’m going to try it next time I make pizza at home.

Rome 3

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Roman dining used to be very tied to the seasons. Now it seems that many formerly time-limited delicacies are available year-round. For instance, abbacchio – milk-fed baby lamb – was always a springtime specialty. But I had it on Halloween this year at the Trattoria dal Cavalier Gino, and it definitely hadn’t been frozen. It’s a very rich meat, for all the delicacy of its appearance.

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BTW again: Gino is a tiny, hidden-away, deeply Roman trattoria, with this inscription in Roman dialect blazoned across one wall: Chi cia li sordi e se li magna e beve arisparambia er pianto dell’erede. What it means (translation from my friend Lars) is “He who has money and spends it on food and drink spares the tears of his heirs.” An encouraging if rather self-serving sentiment!

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Similarly out of season – or so we’d thought – all the restaurants were offering carciofi alla romana and alla giudia (big globe artichokes, braised or deep-fried), fiori fritti (stuffed fried zucchini flowers), and fragoline (tiny wild strawberries). We gobbled as many of all these as we could hold.

Rome 4

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Our last dinner in Rome was at La Campana, yet another old favorite. (I have a menu from the place dated October 28, 1990, which was far from our first meal there. Very little has changed except the prices.) As always, everything we had was delicious. The standout dish this time was my main course, maialino con patate al forno. The suckling pig had the perfect contrast between meltingly tender flesh and crisp, chewy crackling. Terrific potatoes, too.

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Our stay in Rome ended with a short walk to say goodnight to the Pantheon – for us the perfect emblem of the Eternal City.

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Tom and I are just back from ten days in Italy – half in Lazio (the part of that region south of Rome) and half in Rome itself. I indulged in lots of food photography, which I can’t resist displaying over my next few posts.

Starting in the countryside, our travels took us to some very different kinds of places for excellent midday meals.

Lo Scoglio

Our first lunch was at a modest beachfront restaurant in Sabaudia, a resort town on the Mediterranean about 60 miles south of Rome. We sat outdoors under a pergola and ate the freshest imaginable fish.

Top left: Penne con grancio (crab). Top right: Spaghetti alle vongole veraci (clams)

Lo Scoglio

Bottom left: Calamari arrosti (stuffed roasted squid). Bottom right: Pesciolini fritti (fried small fish)

 

Il Funghetto

I’ve written previously about my collection of souvenir plates from Buon Ricordo restaurants. This trip I added a new one from a quite elegant restaurant in a tiny townlet called Borgo Grappa. The special piatto is Coccio del Circeo con primizie dell’Agro Pontino. Coccio is a Lazio name for the fish known as tub gurnard – in the USA, sea robin. Most American fishermen regard it as a pest, but we discovered long ago that it makes a fine substitute for bouillabaisse’s indispensable rascasse. In this dish, it’s cooked in its own broth, with local olive oil and young vegetables from the plains of the region’s former Pontine marshes.

buon ricordo piatto

Another outstanding feature of this surprisingly sophisticated rural restaurant was its white truffle menu, to which Tom succumbed: three courses with truffles, plus desserts, for only €60. My antipasto was a zucchini sformato with buffalo mozzarella, but I also sampled all his dishes. Wonderful truffles! NB: The light was bad for these photos; the truffles were much paler than they look here.

truffle dishesLeft to right: Fonduta ai tartufi, Tagliolini ai tartufi, Dentice ai tartufi

 

Principe Pallavicini Winery

For one day Tom had arranged a professional visit to Pallavicini, one of the oldest and most esteemed wine estates in the Frascati hills. After a tour of the vineyard and cellars, and a formal tasting of nine wines, our hosts sat down with us to a delightful buffet lunch right in the tasting room.

Clockwise from top left in the photo are several kinds of local salume; little buffalo mozzarellas and pacchini tomatoes; roasted zucchini, eggplant, and peppers; roasted porchetta; vegetable couscous; and fresh buffalo ricottas.

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Il Giardino

The Abbazia di Fossanova is a 12th-century ecclesiastical complex near the town of Priverno. It includes the monastery where Thomas Aquinas is believed to have died, as well as an austerely beautiful church. After a fascinating morning’s visit, we stopped for lunch at the first restaurant we saw on our local road back to the coast. This was a time-warp of a rustic place: no décor, no pretensions, no tourists other than us, everyone (including us) drinking the house’s carafe wine, and very good simple food.

One of its specialties was this excellent dish of Cecapreti alla Capra. The pasta was homemade and the sauce was made with lamb (so they said; though capra usually means goat) from mountain sheep in the nearby hills.

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This and our other pasta dish, a classic bucatini all’amatriciana, were preceded by grilled scamorza, the local prosciutto di Bassiano, and fritters of rice, potato, and mozzarella. I wish I could show them to you, but my camera was acting up that afternoon and I don’t have photos.

 

And . . .

We had one more magnificent lunch in Lazio – in fact, the best meal of our entire trip. But I think this post has gone on long enough, so I’ll save that story for next week.

 

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I love the names of dishes from India. Unlike the prosaic English versions of the two in my title – Lamb in Fragrant Garlic Cream Sauce and Baked Eggplant Stuffed with Cheese and Herbs – the exotic Hindi names are so mysterious and appealing! (At least I think that’s Hindi, though it might be Kashmiri or Punjabi or another of the 22 official languages of India.) And I love the flavors of India, whatever their names. Rogan Josh is a particular favorite. Whenever Tom and I go to an Indian restaurant, one of us is bound to order it. But I’d never made it at home, so that was one of the dishes I chose for my latest foray into Indian cooking. For the second I picked an eggplant recipe, to partner with the lamb.

 

Baked Eggplant Stuffed with Cheese and Herbs

Sahni vegetarianThis recipe is from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking. She calls it an elegant and beautifully seasoned preparation, but mine didn’t turn out exactly so on either count – though it looked very good on the page and smelled lovely all through its cooking.

I cut a rotund one-pound eggplant in half and carefully scooped out the flesh, leaving thick enough walls (as I thought) to hold the stuffing. The stuffing was a sauté of chopped onion, ginger, the eggplant pulp, tomatoes, green Bell pepper, cayenne pepper, ground coriander, lemon juice, salt, and pot cheese – the last an acceptable substitute for the Indian cheese called chenna. I filled the eggplant shells with the mixture, set them in a baking dish, and drizzled on olive oil.

They were to be covered with foil and baked for 30 minutes; then uncovered and baked 15 minutes more. I wanted a pan deep enough to keep the cover from touching the filling, and my best pan for that was fairly large. And because of the curvature of the shells, the two stuffed halves didn’t sit perfectly level. So when they came out of the oven, the shells had slid around in their oozing juices, partially collapsed, and spilled some of their filling.  I thought I’d left enough flesh on the skins to make the shells hold up, but I guess I hadn’t.

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In that picture the eggplants are not in the pan they were cooked in. Because of their unfortunate deconstruction, I transferred them to a shallow dish for serving, refilling and reshaping the shells as best I could. And I topped them with chopped cilantro, as recommended.

So how did they taste? Well, all right, but not a big winner. The eggplant pulp hadn’t taken on much of the other flavors, and to me it was still somewhat bitter. Dabs of papaya-orange chutney and mango-chili pickle helped it a lot. Tom liked it more than I did: He thought the bitterness minor and relished the mélange of other flavors.  I noticed, however, that he availed himself of the Indian pickle and chutney pretty freely.

With all the other good things there are to do with eggplant, I’m not likely to make this particular dish again, though I might try a different Indian eggplant recipe before local eggplant season ends.

 

Lamb in Fragrant Garlic Cream Sauce

Sahni classicThe recipe I used for Rogan Josh is from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. This is my favorite Indian cookbook, and I often do lamb dishes from it, but almost always using its recipe for Ghosht Kari, which is a spicy tomato-based stew. Rogan Josh is something else entirely.

First, boned lamb leg meat is cubed and marinated for a few hours in an aromatic puree made from onions, ginger, coriander, cayenne, yogurt, sour cream, and ghee (or melted butter). Then it’s cooked slowly, still in its marinade, until the lamb is perfectly tender –­ about two hours. The cooking aromas were enticing.

After that, in a small pan, you quickly fry chopped garlic, ground cumin, ground cardamom, and garam masala in more ghee, producing more appetizing smells, and stir the mixture into the lamb’s pot, along with a healthy dose of heavy cream. Then the whole concoction has to sit at room temperature for at least two hours.

I did all this a day in advance, because Sahni says it improves with keeping. The next evening I simply heated it up and served it.

 

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Even though it looked unfortunately a bit like dogfood, the Rogan Josh was really delicious, rich and mellow, without the palate-searing chili heat of many Indian dishes. Those cooking aromas hadn’t lied. Like the eggplant, it had no objection to judicious applications of cilantro, chutney, and pickle. The lamb was beautifully tender and well-seasoned, and the sauce was excellent over plain white rice – and also fine to mop up with warm parathas.

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Unlike the eggplant, the lamb is a dish I will definitely make again.

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